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Classrooms in South Africa are failing our children

By Athambile Masola

Recently, in preparation for my Masters thesis, I have been observing Grade 1 classes in Grahamstown schools. This has helped me get a feel for the reality of classroom conditions in the impoverished schools in the town, along with the concerns of teachers.

The surrounding context of these schools is not the lush green lawn and playground safely bound in fencing. Many of these schools lack sporting facilities, jungle gyms or swings for the younger children. The view from the classrooms are the mud-houses and shacks that some of these children walk from every day, derelict “homes” that are at the mercy of any whim of the Grahamstown weather. I have made various observations from visiting these classrooms and interacting with teachers who are doing the most important job in South Africa with the least recognition.

Today I was with a teacher who has been in the profession for 41 years. This is her final year in the classroom; she’s retiring with another colleague who has been teaching for the same amount of time. Another teacher I spoke to had worked for over 30 years; in Grade 1 classrooms.

I’m beginning to realise that most of the teachers in the foundation phase are much older and starting to retire. What does this mean for South African classrooms? This is perhaps frightening, as few young black people are interested in becoming teachers in order to educate the masses of African language-speaking children in their mother tongues. I wonder why we bother advocating a mother-tongue education in the formative years if the number of suitably trained and qualified teachers does not meet the demands?

Apart from talking to the teachers, I’m also learning about their practice and what it takes to teach children how to read and write — often many walk into these classrooms with little or no knowledge of these skills. Being able to read and write is something I think many of us take for granted. Something as simple as reading an SMS needs the skills we learned way back in grade one.

I still remember feeling like a writer in grade one when the entire school magazine was made up of our stories. Even though I was not educated in my mother tongue (this only happened in my third year at varsity), I was still able to express my creativity and put a few sentences together to form a coherent story. I had the privilege of a school library that was made accessible to all pupils, and a community library in walking distance that supplied me with the kind of books I needed to get as much exposure to reading as possible. This is not the case for many of the pupils I saw in these classrooms.

School libraries and even a classroom library are non-existent. Where there is a library in the community, the librarians face the problem of encouraging learners to read books purely for enjoyment and not just the functional purpose of school projects. I realised that this was not possible for all children. The classes are as big as 40 and the teacher has to use creative means of monitoring each child regardless of legislation that proposes a ratio less than this.

Having 40 children in a class means that the teacher is not able to know if all the children in the class are able to read.

In another classroom I observed how language becomes a barrier to learning in a classroom where English is used for teaching and learning, especially if the teacher does not have any knowledge of the pupil’s mother tongue. It’s a pity that parents cannot make the time to visit their children’s classes the way I have been able to; I think they would feel differently about having their children taught in English — an almost foreign language.

It’s frustrating reading about the dismal failure rates in rural and township schools when the matric results are released. It’s even more frightening seeing how the calamity begins at a grade one level. The purpose of this insight is not to berate the teachers but share my experience of the conditions in South Africa’s classrooms.

It is not a surprise that the results from an international reading study, PIRLS, in 2006, showed that South Africa was the worst performing country when our grade four and five pupils were included in the study. The test was administered in the languages that the children where exposed to in their classrooms and pupils who were being taught in Afrikaans were the better performers, followed by those learning in English. Pupils taught in African languages were at the bottom. Not only were South African pupils reaching below the mean set out in this study, we were worse off than countries that weren’t spending as much as we are in education.

I’m making many claims in this article:

  • We need more teachers for education in the formative years
  • We need more teachers who can teach in the African languages in South Africa
  • We need smaller classrooms
  • We have to make literacy an important part of our education by having communities that support literacy through mobile or community libraries
  • We need civic involvement in education where the results become everybody’s problem — not just the teachers

I’m sure we all agree on these imperatives, but underlying them all is the need to address the inequalities we see in our communities because until this is done, our classrooms will be a reminder of how we are failing masses of the children in South Africa.

  • Athambile Masola is a disgruntled student of education at Rhodes University
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